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Student Corner: Ashley Farmer reveals the power of black women in the Black Power Movement

May 7 2018

“Yes, I’m against the war in Vietnam; I’m for African liberation, voter registration, and the people’s survival!”

So declares the black woman featured in a 1972 Black Panther magazine illustration by Black Panther member Gayle Dickson. The powerful illustration was just one archival piece of research displayed by historian, Boston University assistant professor, and former Clayman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Ashley Farmer during her Clayman Institute lecture, “The Black Women Intellectuals and Activists Who Revolutionized Black Power.”

In her new book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, Farmer has rewritten the script about black women’s role in the Black Power Movement, effectively countering the traditional historical narrative that Black Power organizations comprised of and led by black men alone. Her work demonstrates that not only were black women active members in every Black Power effort, they were far from downtrodden and silent followers; instead, black women were actively “thinking about what it meant to be a woman and to adhere to a particular ideology or group.” Their self-expression through art, journalism, and political essays changed the minds of both men and women involved in the movement, even prompting its major leaders to change their approaches to gender politics and women’s roles in the movement. For example, in 1969, Eldridge Cleaver published a “Message to Sister Erica Huggins” that praised Huggins, a then incarcerated female Black Panther member, as “a lesson” that “our women are suffering strongly and enthusiastically as we are participating in the struggle.” In 1970, Huey Newton disavowed the idea that the movement required the suppression of women’s rights: “As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the woman’s right to be free.” Farmer concluded that the Black Power Movement was no more sexist than other movements of its time, and that it served just as much of a locus for black women’s development of intersectional politics as the feminist movement.

Farmer’s book is a revised version of her Ph.D. dissertation; the research for which she continued during her time as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Clayman Institute. “I would read all these books about black women as ‘activists,’” she said in our interview, “but I was wondering what they were thinking or why they believed in in the ideologies that these different [Black Power] groups were putting together.” 

However, as she began her research, she realized there were few traditional sources available to convincingly rewrite the historical narrative about black women in the movement. Institutional and systemic sexism often prevented black women from expressing their politics in recognized “intellectual” formats, such as published and archived speeches or position papers. Grappling with this reality led Farmer to what she considers her book’s second major intervention: challenging traditional ideas of what counts as intellectual expression. By looking at magazine articles, political cartoons, essays, and artwork, Farmer discovered a rich intellectual forum where black women debated gendered ideas within the Black Power Movement. Just because that discourse “doesn’t always take place in traditional spaces or traditional format,” she explained, does not mean “that black women aren’t thinking, theorizing, or affecting the trajectory of the movement as a whole.”

For Farmer, reexamining black women’s roles within the Black Power Movement reveals further important lessons about how to organize activist movements, as well as how to record them. She observed that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, which she sees as “the legacy of the ideologies and expanse and breadth of the [Black Power] movement,” has worked to avoid pitfalls of Black Power organizing because they have taken lessons from this earlier movement. Farmer noted that BLM was founded by three women, suggesting that it is because of black women that the newest movement focusing on black civil rights has become more progressive, and more feminist. BLM, she said, has moved away from the “great man structure,” a framework that builds a movement around one charismatic man; it has instead adopted a “decentralized organizational structure.” BLM also explicitly strives for inclusivity of female and LGBT activists. 

As Farmer’s research demonstrates, reexamining research through an intersectional lens can powerfully reshape the historical narrative. Farmer also believes the feminist principles that shaped her work can also be applied to how we record history as it happens. When studying movements like BLM, she explained, there is an opportunity for “a huge intervention in the way we write things down for future people.” She asserted that documenting activist action means not only “talking to the spokesperson, but to the other people who are there,” and conducting oral interviews to capture diverse perspectives. Because, after all, today’s manifestos, articles, stories, and artwork “[will become] the primary source material on which future historians can write.”

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.